By Kajal Bandyopadhyay
Achebe, religion, renaissance and Bangladesh
In 2008, the world celebrated 50 years of the publication of a modern classic, Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. The English Department of Dhaka University took an initiative of celebrating the occasion through a day-long international conference. As part of the program, we were trying to contact Chinua Achebe through a very close friend of his, Professor Don Burness. And the latter finally succeeded in procuring a message of greetings for us from Achebe. With all gratefulness to Prof. Burness, I shall share it today with our readers today.
As the sad news of his passing away reaches us, let me remember how, in an interview, Chinua Achebe recalls his beginnings. There he admits his “beginnings” to have been “clearly influenced by religion.” He tells Bradford Morrow, “In fact, my whole artistic career was probably sparked off by … tension between the Christian religion of my parents, which we followed in our home, and the retreating, older religion of my ancestors, which fortunately for me was still active outside my home. This tension created sparks in my imagination.” In a sense, therefore, Achebe’s writing career had its inception in conflicts over religion. One can mark how Achebe could, very unusually, find fault with his own religion and find value in the indigenous religion that his grandparents had left behind, “Of course, I did have long periods of doubt and uncertainty, and had a period where I objected strongly to the certitude of Christianity — I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. When I was little, that didn’t mean anything to me, but later on I was able to compare it with the rather careful and far more humble attitude of my indigenous religion in which because they recognized different gods they also recognized that you might be friendly with this god and fall out with the other one.”
So, this is perhaps the perfect Renaissance worldview in Chinua Achebe, of unbiased appreciation of people’s various responses to big and small happenings at different places of the planet and at times of history. This is the balance of “normal self-acceptance” that we find in Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo also. Achebe writes almost the same story about his childhood happenings in his famous essay, “Named for Victoria”, wherein we find him calling his childhood years “crossroads of cultures” that was more “clearly” there then than in later times. I do not quote, but, on the basis of it, say that the question with Achebe was of seeing “a canvas steadily and fully”–which by implication is what historical Renaissance means. In “Named for Victoria,” Achebe calls Things Fall Apart (TFA) itself “an act of atonement with my past, a ritual return,” definitely which also is Renaissance. But what is amazing is how Achebe thinks he got the required outlook, which is Renaissance in character, from his “indigenous religion.”
Now, Achebe remembers how there was even in his devoutly Christian father an element of ambivalence that led to the Renaissance spirit through the “artistic element.” He remembers, for example, how his father would “be offended if a masquerade came out improperly set up”. “Now you wouldn’t think that he had any interest in whether a masquerade was properly done up or not. But … I realised that before he became a Christian, he had been a sensational masquerader himself, and that the masquerade which he carried was so famous, for its agility and its dance …”
Now, as the Renaissance in Europe brought back Greek and Roman literature and art of excellent quality, so in the case of Achebe’s father and in his own, there was the instinctive pull towards “good form, to the artistic element in our tradition.” Achebe remembers how “it was that element, particularly the artistic element in our culture that attracted me; a good story, a good dance, a good piece of music, …”
The relativism that Achebe goes by in distancing himself from his own religion, Christianity, and in speaking appreciatively of his grandparents’ religion is an ability that Europeans could develop, one can say, only over centuries. In an interview with Tony Hall, Achebe talks about this, and it appears that conversion to Christianity, instead of resulting in a blind and fanatic allegiance, rather helped him in achieving the required “detachment.”
This reminds me of how Karl Marx, being a materialist of a grand and fine scale, could look at religion from a similar distance, and arrive at very deep, true and imaginative conceptions of a “heart of the heartless world” and “sigh of the oppressed creature” about it. In spite of being a Christian, Achebe tells participants in a class discussion in Washington that any claim to certitude like what were made to see by the Christians in Umuofia when they preached “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” was “just blasphemy.” Pre-Christian religion, art, literature, and sculpture of Greece or Rome, we know, were similarly rejected and looked down upon with certitude by Christians in Europe. In Things, Achebe is “history’s eye-witness.”
To retrieve the human face of Africa, he successfully avoids self-idealisation there. He looks critically in all possible directions, and this is the kind of poise required, in a situation of entanglement, for resolution or synthesis. That is why it appears to me that TFA may turn out to be very helpful or effective in resolving the core crisis now pertaining in Bangladesh where a big section of the people are suffering from an unusual inability to appreciate various worldviews. People in Bangladesh urgently require nation-formation to begin and proceed quickly, and that has to happen through a transformation of the nature of Renaissance. But it is revealing that in Bangladesh critics zealously mark how Chinua Achebe, in “An Image of Africa: Racism in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, lashes out at Conrad, who exposes colonial exploitation but indulges in racialismcolonialism’s principal ideological tool. In an ironically similar pattern, and in the characteristic situation of nation-formation not making any headway, intellectuals here, like Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, pretend to be exposing and condemning capitalism, but overtly or covertly indulge in communalismcapitalism’s principal ideological tool here.
My other significant feeling is that rigorous restrictions coming from emergent forces of history and their going, coming of information, perception, etc. are usual ways of happenings throughout history. These map a common pattern of conflict in culture and civilization. In the case of Christianity, the going of bans became as sensational as the particular word “Renaissance” suggests. One can, for example, mark how Okonkwo, Obeirika and others go attacking and undermining the ways of the neighboring villages. The way Chinua Achebe thus presents rifts and recovery as happening during and after colonialism in Nigeria’s Ibo land, it is remarkable more because of how normal it appears. Things Fall Apart has become a modern classic the world over because it has presented a familiar scene of self-recovery true on many times and at many places. It is more relevant and significant for countries like Bangladesh where ruptures and bruises in culture and civilization remain unaddressed in very ominous ways.
Kajal Bandyopadhyay teaches at the department of English, Dhaka University.